CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. — Two special guests looked on as NASA successfully launched its Perseverance Mars rover on July 30, beginning a nearly seven-month journey to the Red Planet.
Those onlookers were Alex Mather, a 7th-grade student from Virginia, and Vaneeza Rupani, a high-school senior from Alabama, and they earned their vantage point on the roof of an engineering building at Kennedy Space Center in an unusual way: with names.
In advance of the launch of what was then known only as the Mars 2020, mission, NASA challenged children in grades K-12 to suggest a name for the six-wheeled, car-sized rover and write a compelling essay as to why their moniker was the best choice. The winner would not only get to name the rover, but also travel to Florida to see it launch.
Related: NASA's Mars Perseverance rover mission to the Red Planet (photos)
A helicopter named Ingenuity
Alex and Vaneeza were both finalists, and in March of this year, NASA announced that Alex's name, Perseverance, was the winner. Shortly afterward, the agency revealed that Vaneeza's suggestion, Ingenuity, would adorn the rover's small travel companion, the first interplanetary helicopter.
The two students traveled to Florida with their families to watch the launch full of excitement for the mission.
"We were a little disappointed [that my name wasn't chosen]," 17-year-old Vaneeza said when asked how she felt about her name being selected for the helicopter. "And then I got the call for the helicopter."
"There was a little disbelief at first but mostly excitement," she added.
Due to the coronavirus pandemic, the students weren't sure they would be able to travel to the launch, but Vaneeza said her whole family was very excited and fortunate to be here. "I'm very, very excited and trying to [stay] calm," she said.
Vaneeza is an aspiring engineer and says her interest in space blossomed at a young age. She attributes this to her father, stating that his passion for space helped spur her interest. "Ever since I was little, I have been reading about space and interested in it," she said. "I take a lot of it from my dad."
She first found out about the contest while reading headlines on the NASA website and decided to give it a go. Vaneeza said that when coming up with her name, she tried to answer the question of how it's possible to do science and engineering on other planets. "I thought ingenuity answered that question best," she said.
Perseverance is more than a rover
Alex Mather, a 14-year-old, said he was beyond excited to be at the Kennedy Space Center for the launch. "This is an amazing place, with amazing people, doing amazing things," he said.
When asked about why he chose the name Perseverance, he explained that to him this mission was just as much about humanity as it was exploring Mars.
"Mars missions take a lot of perseverance, but this mission to me is a lot about being human," he said. "One of our greatest qualities is perseverance."
Alex said he grew up obsessed with science but his fascination for space came later, after a visit to Space Camp in Alabama. His time there fueled his passion for space, he said, and when the competition popped up he knew he had to enter.
Since winning the contest, Alex had been able to meet a few of the members of the Perseverance team, describing them as his role models in life.
Related: The search for life on Mars (a photo timeline)
His trip to Florida to watch the rover take flight almost didn't happen as the pandemic swept the nation. Alex said his first priority this spring was to figure out how he was going to finish the school year; once that was settled and his family thought they could travel safely, the trip to Florida was on.
"Just being here, it's absolutely worth it," he said.
Alex and Vaneeza and their families were able to watch the launch from Kennedy Space Center property. Standing on the balcony of the Operations Support Building II, the duo watched in awe as the United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket took flight. It was each student's first launch.
Following blast-off, Thomas Zurbuchen, NASA's associate administrator of science, chatted with Alex and Vaneeza in a short video posted to Twitter.
"I'm over the moon," Vaneeza said, describing her feelings after the launch. "That was probably the coolest thing I've ever seen and I can't wait to see it land on Mars in February."
Alex agreed. "It was just so overwhelming on a sensory level," he said. "It's indescribable."
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